2005 rendering of the transitway by DJM Harris/AECOM for WMATA/DDOT.

In her State of the District address Monday evening, DC Mayor Muriel Bowser pledged $122 million to build the K Street Transitway. Residents who haven't been in DC for a decade, and probably 98% of those who have, may have been wondering: What the heck is the K Street Transitway?

In a nutshell, the K Street Transitway would create dedicated middle lanes for buses on K Street NW between Mount Vernon Square and Washington Circle. It could save tens of thousands of bus riders a lot of time traveling east-west through the downtown area. Bowser did not mention the Union Station to Georgetown streetcar, which was designed to use the transitway but is not funded.

For most of this length, K Street has a four-lane center roadway and then side “service roads” with two lanes each, one of which has parking and the other is a combination of turn lane and access for the parking. This is really not a very efficient use of space for anyone, including drivers, as the service lanes get backed up, people are confused about whether they can turn off K Street from the center lanes or the service lanes, etc.

K Street’s boulevard median, with bus stop by BeyondDC licensed under Creative Commons.

Meanwhile, traveling east-west through the downtown core of DC is often slow, including for buses which carry a lot of people. When the Obama administration's stimulus program started in 2009, DC raced to further develop a 2005 idea for rebuilding K Street.

The winner among a few options would, basically, move the medians inward by one lane. Instead of four lanes in the middle and two on each side, there would be two in the middle and three on each side:

K Street is narrower past Farragut & McPherson squares, so the medians would go away and there would be fewer side lanes. Image by DJM Harris/AECOM for WMATA/DDOT.

The middle lanes would be for buses only, all the time, plus emergency vehicles. These buses could enjoy much faster rides through the crowded core. On the side roadways, there would be parking outside rush hours but three full driving lanes each way during rush hours, possibly moving cars faster as well.

K Street cross-section now by Streetmix licensed under Creative Commons.

K Street cross-section with the transitway by Streetmix licensed under Creative Commons.

Even now, there are 55 buses per hour at the peak on K Street, or almost one every minute. Every bus going east-west through the downtown area has to use either K or H and I.

The 2005 and 2009 studies recommended that not all buses use the new transitway. Commuter buses would probably not use it, since they stop for longer periods of time in one place to load and unload. There are buses which only take K Street for a block or two, and it's unclear if they would use the transitway; the 2005 study noted that turning buses would need a special signal phase to cross the outer roadway and might block the buses behind; therefore, it recommended limiting the number of places buses can turn off.

On the other hand, the studies recommending switching some buses on H and I streets to use K, such as the 30s buses from Wisconsin Avenue to Pennsylvania Avenue SE. Buses that travel many blocks on K would benefit the most from the transitway. Other buses which won't use the transitway could move from K to H and I, though the studies didn't make specific recommendations (and are a decade or more old).

The District Department of Transportation still plans to move ahead with pilot rush-only bus lanes on H and I streets this summer, because this project is years away, and even if it's built there will be buses on H and I and enough buses at rush hour to fill space on all three streets.

K Street streetcar rendering by DDOT.

From bus to streetcar and back again

After DC finished its analysis in 2009 and received an environmental “Finding of No Significant Impact,” it applied for TIGER grant stimulus money but didn't get any. Later, as DDOT planned a streetcar system including the first main line from Benning Road to Georgetown, it planned to use the transitway for the streetcar instead.

The transitway is the biggest reason the streetcar extension to Georgetown would, according to DDOT's projections, have saved 30 minutes off trips and carried 19,000 riders per day, or three times as much as existing buses.

Travel time comparison for current buses versus the K Street streetcar by DDOT.

However, past budgets have funded an extension of the streetcar to Benning Road but not west from Union Station, and Bowser did not talk about funding it in her speech. Assuming that means no change in the budget for streetcar, the transitway will presumably start with buses only.

This transitway is only a part of the full Union Station-Georgetown streetcar proposal's dedicated lanes, and its projections may rely on other benefits of streetcars such as higher capacity and faster loading/unloading (since they can be longer, with more doors). Still, a bus transitway is likely to mean a huge increase in the quality of bus service for people coming from neighborhoods from upper Northwest to east of the Anacostia River and many others.

DDOT Director Jeff Marootian said that more details such the timeline would be released later this week, when the mayor's budget comes out. One question to ask is whether the reconstructed street will have the base necessary to be able to add tracks in the future, should DC decide to extend the existing streetcar in the future.

Adopt-A-Tag

Allison Davis is this month’s sponsor for posts about Transit. Learn more »

David Alpert is Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.